Just a quick note: I’ve changed the URL of this site from atarieviewer.com to atarireviews.com, mostly so people can spell it. The old URL should also work until mid-April, so update your links before then!
All right guys, everyone sing along:
M.U.L.E. and I have a different backstory than all of the games I’ve reviewed thus far. In contrast to all these games that our family possessed since before I could remember, I didn’t discover M.U.L.E. until well into high school in the late 1990’s, when the internet was still fresh and new and mostly made up of Geocities sites filled with animated GIFs and visible site counters and guestbooks and blocks of Times New Roman text as far as the eye could see. I don’t remember exactly how or where I learned about M.U.L.E., but I’ve been playing it on emulators since I learned about it and have yet to play it on an actual Atari machine. The point is, the first time I played this game was not as a child, but as a late teenager, which is all for the best, because otherwise this review may have been tainted by the possible memory of a five-year-old self trying to wrap his poor little head around what is going on in this game and getting frustrated, and that would have been a downright shame.
You see, M.U.L.E. isn’t just a good game. It isn’t just a great game. It is quite possibly the best Atari game of all time, and in my opinion, one of the best games ever made, period. And I can say that without the benefit of deep nostalgia glasses (well, I suppose it was still more than fifteen years ago, so there’s a little bit of nostalgia), unlike, say, Pitfall II or Ballblazer.
Let’s start with the easiest part to go over: the music. When that theme song started playing, I knew that I would love this game, even if it were otherwise entirely terrible, on the merit of that song alone. It’s catchy, it’s got a good beat, it’s not just a repurposed classical piece of music like so many of its contemporaries…it’s wonderful all around. Just play the video at the top of this post one more time and see if it doesn’t bring at least a hint of a smile to your face.
M.U.L.E. has three difficulty levels: Beginner, Standard, and Tournament, and for the purposes of this review I’ll be looking at the Tournament level (the differences among the three will be discussed later on in this review). The premise of the game is that four different aliens have been commissioned by The Galactic Federation (how come it’s always a Federation in space? Sure, you get a few Alliances or Empires here and there, but it’s almost always a Federation. Where are the Space Kingdoms, or Commonwealths, or Fiefdoms, or whatever? Come on, people, let’s get creative!) to colonize the planet Irata (a meaningful ananym if there ever was one). The colony ship leaves you to your own devices for twelve months, after which it will return and crown a First Founder, depending on which colonist performs the best in the interim. Each player picks an alien species, from humanoid to robot to an E.T. ripoff to basically Pac-Man to some other species that are probably references to something (the choice is mostly for aesthetics, though some start with more or less cash than the others), and off you go!
The game consists of three basic phases during each month. First, the Land Grant phase, where the game scrolls quickly through all the available land plots. Simply hit your trigger as soon as the plot you want is highlighted and it’s yours. If someone beats you to it, then it’s theirs! If the game has gone through all available plots and you never hit the trigger, then sucks to be you! No free land this turn, bucko! Sometimes there is also a land auction after the grant phase, where a plot of land will go on the auction block (the controls for which I’ll go over in a minute). This can be useful to get a leg up on the competition, especially in the early game where production is still at a minimum, but be careful; you don’t want to pay too much for a useless plot of land (they figure out to be about $500 in your net worth regardless of how much you paid for it). Plots of land produce more resources if they’re contiguous with other plots that you already own and/or producing similar resource types, and certain types of land are more or less likely to produce corresponding resource types.
Speaking of resources, there are four in the game: Food (which is used to determine how long your turn is during the second phase), Energy (which determines how productive all your other plots are), Smithore (which you can sell to the store so they can make more M.U.L.E.s), and Crystite (which is just a cash crop) Each resource is most plentiful on certain terrain types: food grows best in the river valley, energy is best produced on flat land, and smithore is best mined from mountains. Crystite is a special case: normally, there are three plots (to start with) that have a high concentration of Crystite, with those surrounding it having medium, then low concentrations. You can’t tell which plots of land contain it just by sight, though; you have to take a soil sample of a plot and bring it to the assay office, where they’ll tell you what the Crystite concentration of said plot is, which eats up precious time.
Some of you may be asking at this point, “Well, that’s all well and good, but you still haven’t told me what the heck a M.U.L.E. is! Galdern it to shootin’ flippin’ purgatory, I want to know!” First of all, language! Second of all, the M.U.L.E. comes into play during the second phase of each turn, where each player gets to decide which plots of their land are producing which resources. Lesser games might just have you point-and-click (or whatever the equivalent of that was back in the 80’s) from a menu or map, but M.U.L.E. takes it one step further in what I consider to be one of the defining elements of the game that takes it from being a pretty good economic game into something a lot more fun and sublime.
You begin this phase in the general store, where you have to buy a M.U.L.E. (which stands for Multi-Use Labor Element and, as far as the graphics go, seems to be a smaller repurposed AT-AT from Star Wars), outfit it with the tools it needs to produce whatever resource you want, and then take it to your land and put it to work. This is done by physically going to the M.U.L.E. store, then the outfitters, and finally walking the distance to your land and back. The catch is that you’ve only got a limited time to do this (less if you’re running low on food), moving through difficult terrain takes longer, and M.U.L.E.s have a tendency to run off if not properly installed (if you run out of time before installing it, or hit the button while not on the little “home” icon on your land). You can also switch M.U.L.E.s between different plots of land, repurpose M.U.L.E.s that you already own for a different resource, sell plots of land at auction, or take soil samples to find out where Crystite is. You can even “Hunt the Wampus”, which mostly consists of waiting until a yellow dot appears on a mountain, then quickly rushing over to catch it before it disappears, which nets you a lump of cash (it’s what the Wampus, which is some sort of big dog-like thing that is not a Wumpus, pays you so that you let it go free). Finally, you can go to the pub to end your turn, which earns you a sum of money won “gambling.” This is not actually gambling, since you win money every time, so don’t take any life lessons out of the M.U.L.E. pub!
It’s this sudden genre shift, where a game of economics suddenly turns into an action game (albeit a simple one) that keeps gameplay fresh and interesting. Often a player has a perfect economic strategy set up, only to panic when the timer starts clicking down and accidentally release a M.U.L.E., or they just don’t have the time they need to rearrange all their production to be efficient, or they just win a ton of money from a Wampus so they can buy the energy/food that they couldn’t afford otherwise. It keeps it from being a dry numbers-cruncher into an honest-to-goodness video game that couldn’t, say, be replicated with a board game or something. Plus, the fortunes (for good an bad) that can befall a player during this phase is part of what gives the game its unique charm, such as money from winning the colony M.U.L.E. tap-dancing contest, cat-bugs that eat your roof, or my personal favorite: dividends collected from investing in “artificial dumbness.”
In any case, after all players have completed their turns, production begins, where each plot of land produces some amount of resources, depending on land type, resource type, number of contiguous plots owned, amount of energy possessed by the player, and so on. Usually a random event occurs during production for good and for ill, such as sunspot activity increasing energy production, a pest attack eating all of a plot’s food, or even a pirate ship that comes and steals all Crystite from the colony. After production has concluded, gameplay proceeds to the real meat of the game: the Auction phase.
During this third phase players have a chance to buy and/or sell all four resource types. This is done representatively with all sellers lined up at the top of the screen and all buyers at the bottom. The further a player moves their line up/down the screen, the higher or lower their asking price is, and when two players’ lines meet, a transaction occurs until either one player moves away, the buyer runs out of money, or the seller runs out of stock (a seller also resets to the top when they hit a “critical level” of food/energy, i.e. the amount they need to still have maximum time or production during the next turn, though they can still sell more if they want to until they run dry). Two players can also “collude” by pressing their triggers simultaneously, locking everyone else out of the process until they’re done trading, at which point the regular auction resumes. Players can also buy from/sell to the store, assuming the store has any stock left in it to sell. The starting prices are mostly determined by supply and demand (the less of a resource there is, the higher the starting price will be), though if everything is plentiful then food and energy are usually far cheaper than smithore, and the price of Crystite is determined randomly (from $50 to $150), since its price is influenced by the “off-world market” and not by anything the players do. An auction ends when the timer runs out (which expires quickly if nobody is moving, so you don’t have to sit there for a whole minute for each auction, which is a nice touch). The land auctions are also conducted using this interface, though if it’s the bank selling and not another player, then whichever player bids the highest price gets the land, without having to meet a seller’s line.
Though the action phase is probably the most unique, the auction phase (it just occurred to me how similar both those names are) is where the heart of the game lies. There is a myriad of strategies that can be employed to ensure victory here, such as cornering the market on certain resources to drive up the price (this is especially effective if there’s a fire in the store which causes all of the store’s resources to be lost), or holding back on selling smithore so that the other players have to pay through the nose for their M.U.L.E.s (assuming the store doesn’t run out), or even buying out the store’s stock of a certain resource that you don’t need, just as a hardy middle-finger to everyone else. Seriously, entire articles and/or guides can be written about how to play this phase of the game and barely scratch the surface.
After this, a stats screen pops up, showing everyone’s current standings, after which the next month begins with another land grant. After twelve turns, the colony ship arrives, and whoever did the best is crowned “First Founder” and wins the game! In an interesting twist, however, if the colony failed to meet a certain level of competency (for example, if one player screwed over the others so thoroughly that the net worth of the entire colony is terrible), the Federation declares the colony a loss, everyone is sent to work at a M.U.L.E. factory, and nobody wins. This ensures that even the most cutthroat players have to be at least semi-cooperative in order to give other players a better chance, and it also helps avoid the Monopoly syndrome where one player is so far ahead that it becomes a chore to finish the game, as the suspense is gone.
The Standard mode of the game cuts out Crystite and collusion entirely (making smithore normally the money-making resource of choice), but is otherwise virtually identical to the Tournament mode. The Beginner mode shortens the game to six months, cuts out land auctions, has the store charge a flat rate for M.U.L.E.s which are in infinite supply, and makes the auction phase far simpler (all products have a buy/sell price that can’t be exceeded, the store has a lot more stock, you can’t sell past your critical level, etc.). These modes make it a fairly simple process to introduce new players to the game, as the Beginner mode makes it easy to understand what’s going on without having to resort to putting all its instructions into a manual (what I’ve called manualitis on this site), and even the Standard mode can be fun for veterans who don’t want to deal with the unpredictability of Crystite.
Do I really need to say more about how great this game is? The controls are easy to learn and fun to use. The sound is beautiful and functional. The graphics aren’t great, but they don’t need to be. The replayability factor is through the roof, especially with multiplayer. Sessions can get tense. Friendships may be ruined. Punches may fly. Someone may get a joystick shoved up their nose. But in the end, everyone will be glad they played, even if Bob cornered the stupid food market again and all you could do was run to the pub every single stinkin’ turn. Punk.
The influence that this game has had on subsequent games is enormous, from parts of Spore to units in Starcraft II to being an inspiration behind Pikmin, not to mention being one of early Electronic Arts’ defining games. I discovered this in high school and have been playing it since. If you haven’t played it yet, then take my advice: more than any other game featured on this site, this is the one that you need to find and play, especially with friends. If you know someone who keeps going on and on about how great Settlers of Catan is, then they’re the perfect candidate to introduce to M.U.L.E. What are you waiting for? The theme music again? In that case, here it is!
The next game to be reviewed is a mystery at the moment, but my plan going forward will be revealed in the next post. Stay tuned!
Before I launch into uncharted waters, reviewing games beyond those I had originally planned, I’d like to take this moment to pull together some interesting numbers from all the games I’ve reviewed (and thus all the Atari games I had growing up) and see what trends develop (excluding the L.E.A.P. Disks and my old BASIC games):
Total Number of Games I’ve Reviewed So Far: 106
Games with spaceships (usually shooting
aliens things): 25 (24%)
Asteroids, Atari Invaders, Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom, Caverns of Mars II, Cosmic Tunnels, Crossfire, Defender, Embargo, Galaxian, Gorf, Journey to the Planets, The Last Starfighter, Missile Command (kinda), Onslaught, Quarxon, Race in Space, Rescue Mission (Rescue on Fractalus), Star Raiders, Star Wars, Stargate Courier, Starion, Survivor, Turmoil, Vanguard, Zaxxon
Games where you control vehicles other than spaceships: 18 (17%)
Baja Bug, Ballblaster (Ballblazer), Blue Max, Encounter, Flying Ace, Fort Apocalypse, Joust (they’re birds you’re riding, but I’ll count it), Jumbo Jet Pilot, Nautilus, Night Mission (pinball) Pinhead, PitStop, Pogoman, Pole Position, Protector II, Speedway Blast, Submarine Commander, Super Cobra
Games where you control a guy/animal who jumps around or climbs ladders (or trees or whatever), usually viewed from the side: 25 (24%)
Amphibian, Apple Panic, BC’s Quest for Tires, Bruce Lee, Canyon Climber II, Congo Bongo, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Fast Eddie, Firebird, Frogger 2, H.E.R.O., Hard Hat Mack, Journey to the Planets, Jumpman Junior, Kangaroo, Lode Runner, Mario Bros., Miner 2049er, Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory, Necromancer, Pharaoh’s Curse, Pitfall II, Popeye, Preppie
Games where you explore or navigate a maze (usually top-down, sometimes 3D): 15 (14%)
(note: this doesn’t count games like Bruce Lee or Pitfall II where you’re freely exploring a game world with multiple ways to go: these are similar to Pacman mazes.)
Games based on pre-existing games, usually either sports or board games: 14 (13%)
Ballblaster (Ballblazer), Gamestar Baseball, Knockout!, Night Mission (pinball) One on One, PitStop, Pole Position, Pool, Preppie, Professor IQ, Reversi, Shooting Arcade, Starbowl Football, Track and Field
Games based on/clones of/sequels to other video games: 23 (22%)
(I may miss some of these if they’re based on games I haven’t played/am not familiar with. I’m also not counting ports from arcade games with the same name, like Asteroids or Pacman.)
- Space Invaders: Atari Invaders, Gorf
- Pacman: Monster Maze, Mouse, Ms. Pacman, Tumble Bugs
- Breakout: Super Breakout, Clowns & Balloons
- Frogger: Frogger 2, Froggie, Pacific Coast Highway, Preppie
- Donkey Kong: Canyon Climber II, Congo Bongo, Donkey Kong Jr., Kangaroo, Popeye*
- Other: Caverns of Mars II (sequel to Caverns of Mars), Jumpman Junior (sequel to Jumpman), Pharoah’s Pyramid (clone of Q*Bert), Pitfall II (sequel to Pitfall!), Protector II (sequel to Protector), Snake Byte (clone of Snake)
*Popeye was actually what Donkey Kong was supposed to be until Nintendo couldn’t get the rights to the characters, so I’m putting it here for that reason.
Games that don’t fit into any of the above categories: 10 (9%)
These don’t add up to 100% exactly, since some games fit in multiple categories. And now: charts!
So what can we extrapolate from all this? Here are some of my conclusions:
- Spaceship games! Boy, were these all the rage! Virtually a quarter of all the games I had were space-based in some way; I’m guessing it was due to games like Space Invaders or even the first video game ever (Spacewar!) being so influential at the time. Plus, the early 80’s was the era of the space shuttle, and I’d probably still consider it part of the Space Age (as opposed to the Information Age in which we are currently living). Space!
- Platformers existed and were a hefty chunk of the market even back before Super Mario Bros. came out, and while almost none of them I would call sidescrollers in the Mario vein (unlike the glut of platformers that came in the decade or so after SMB’s release), the basic elements that would shape the most common game genre of the 20th century (platforming) were already present in a fair amount of games.
- Clones! This isn’t a surprise, really, as one of the causes of the Game Crash of ’83 were tons of badly-done clones of, like, five or six games. The best clones added some new spin that transformed the old game completely, whereas the lesser ones just updated (or, in some cases, downgraded) the graphics or sound, or the new gameplay twists either added nothing or made the game worse. In either case, this kind of thing is still alive and well, from the glut of platformers in the 90’s to the sea of Call of Duty in which we find ourselves today, clones have always been a part of gaming.
- More than 90% of games at the time fit neatly into the four categories I mentioned: space, vehicle, platformer, or maze games (if they weren’t based on a pre-existing game). Sure, there were a few original ideas, but they were few and far between.
- The genre had little to do with quality, however; all of these categories contain both really great and really terrible games. It’s what you do in the genre that counts, not just the genre itself. You couldn’t just make a spaceship game back then and expect it to be a success. Just like you can’t nowadays just make an FPS and expect it to do well on those merits alone. But people hadn’t learned that lesson yet, which is why the Game Crash of ’83 occurred in the first place. Let’s learn from this. Support indie games and all that!
- That’s all I can think of right now. Does anything stand out to you? Post a comment or whatever.
Journey to the Planets
Have you ever known someone who had a lot of great ideas, but who lacked the talent, or the dedication, or the people skills needed to find someone else with either the talent or dedication, to make their ideas not just a reality, but something truly great? Maybe they saw someone else do it, and thought it wouldn’t be hard, or maybe they watched a few YouTube tutorials and suddenly became a self-proclaimed expert, or maybe they stuck with it until they got bored and someone else who didn’t care was forced to finish it. And when you see the final product you can tell that, somewhere in there, there’s a lot of passion and love, but it’s buried under a pile of mediocrity and lazy execution. Or maybe it would’ve been a fine piece of work had somebody else been around to do some editing, or say “You know, this part doesn’t work.” I don’t know if this is the case with the creator(s) of Journey to the Planets, but it sure feels that way (though probably not the YouTube part).
So you’re some guy who’s on an unknown planet for unknown reasons. What you gotta do is get in a spacecraft and fly to all the other planets in this sector of space and get valuables from them. Collect enough, and whatever space deities that there are may decide that you’re a bad enough dude to make it back home to your own planet. The premise has potential, and indeed, this could’ve been a quite a good game, if not for a few fatal flaws. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, you have to remember to pick up a gun. This is accomplished by walking to the right for several empty screens, picking it up, and walking to the left through the same empty screens until you reach your spacecraft. Lifting off (and more importantly, landing) feels like the old “Lunar Lander” game where you’ve gotta have the proper speed to avoid crashing, which in this game is represented by the color of your status bar (red means you’re going too fast to enter an atmosphere without burning up, yellow means you can enter an atmosphere but not land, and green means you can land). This is if you choose normal landings; the hard option throws in random stuff like wind, random stuff in the sky that you can crash into, and fluctuating gravity, including reverse gravity (yeah, that makes sense). Word of advice: don’t pick the hard option. Just don’t.
Anyway, once you lift off from your planet, you fly around in 64 sections of mostly empty space looking for planets, and occasionally crashing into comets and dying. Once you find a planet you’ve gotta land, and having done that successfully you then need to collect whatever treasure is on that planet. The catch is that each planet has a different obstacle/puzzle/action sequence that you’ve gotta get through. Sometimes there are just things shooting at you that you’ve gotta kill in order to lower the barrier to the next screen, sometimes there are minor inventory puzzles(!), but most often the graphics are too poor to really figure out what to do without a whole lot of trial and error.
This brings up one of the biggest problems with this game: the graphics are atrocious. Now, I know that this is an Atari 800 (or so), not an Xbox One or anything, but these graphics are on par with 2600 graphics, and not good 2600 graphics either. It’s not a port or anything either; according to Wikipedia, this game was made specifically for the Atari 8-bit line, in 1982, no less. Normally, terrible graphics are OK if the gameplay itself is fun, but the problem comes when you try to create puzzles around using various items but you can’t tell what the items are. One planet, for example, had what looked like a tire jack, a rope (maybe?) that you could pick up, and some sort of crab-thing that would kill you if you touched it. Touching the “rope” would cause your character to pick it up, but pressing the trigger anywhere would just make the “rope” disappear and respawn in its original location. How were you supposed to get past the crab? I dunno. I guess I could look it up online now, but in ’82 that wasn’t an option (and I doubt that the one guy who made this had a hint line). So, trial-and-error, I guess?
Even with all that, though, the one terrible bit of this game that crosses the line from somewhat annoying to “throw-the-keyboard-across-the-room” frustrating is how it handles death. Every time you touch an enemy, or get shot, or don’t land quite right, or run into a comet in space, or whatever, the game respawns you back on the original planet. Which means that, every time you die, you have to slowly traverse the empty home planet over to your spaceship, lift off again, fly through space to whatever planet you were working on, land again without screwing it up, start all the puzzles over again, and then die because you still don’t know how to use that rope correctly and your experimenting with it just caused you to die again. I mean, come on! Also the whole time you’re using up energy, of which you have a finite amount (you can recharge on your original planet at the structure that looks like a five-year-old tried to draw the Parthenon, but it costs you points). And let’s not forget that, the entire time you’re in your spaceship, “Anchors Aweigh” plays incessantly in the background, just to get on your nerves some more.
This is a really frustrating game, though not just because the gameplay is frustrating. In parts you can tell that there was some great attention to detail by its ambitious creator. They tried to make each planet unique, and there are certainly some nice graphical touches (like the fact that, when the ship is in the upper atmosphere, the horizon below you kind of looks like a zoomed-out version of what the actual landscape is when you finally get out and explore it). Overall, however, I can’t quite recommend it, as those two frustrating bits I mentioned really killed the experience. It just seemed like the whole thing was a labor of love, but it didn’t get sufficient QA testing (if any). If you do play it, make sure that you play it on an emulator and make a lot of savestates, at least until you figure out how to pass all the puzzles.
Canyon Climber II
“You know what Donkey Kong needs? Angry goats! And crapping birds! And why isn’t Donkey Kong a donkey?!? It says ‘Donkey’ right in his name!” said no one ever.
Well, one guy said that: whoever made Canyon Climber II. You star as some vaguely Pitfall-Harry-looking guy who’s stuck in the bottom of what I assume is the Grand Canyon, what with all the mesas, and plateaus, and red rocks, and, uh, goats. The game consists of three screens. The first consists of you running over four sections of a bridge arranged vertically while angry mountain goats try to butt you off the level. They may have a good reason, however, as for some reason you’re actually setting explosives on this bridge, and when they’re all set then KABLOOIE! goes the bottom of the canyon! Now how are those goats gonna get around? Goats need bridges, damn it!
Having done that, you are now somehow allowed to move up to the second stage, which is literally the first level of Donkey Kong presented in the most boring possible way. Donkey Kong is now an actual donkey, who is kicking, uh, sagebrush, I guess, down at you. Also, there’s nobody to rescue, no oil barrels, and the sagebrush bushes all move straight down the varying levels without taking any shortcuts on ladders. At least there are two virtually useless hammers. My favorite part is that upon reaching the top, the theme music for the game plays as if you finished the entire game, but suddenly cuts out about halfway through as it switches to the next level, as if the game was saying, “Congratulations! You beat the game! You are a super playe–wait, what’s that? There’s a third level? Aw, man!”
Said third level (featured in the screenshot) is mostly just jumping up mesas while birds crap on you from above. It’s the only level to actually live up to the name “Canyon Climber,” at least. When you reach the top, the game finally plays the whole theme song, after which an angry goat suddenly comes out of nowhere and butts you off, causing you to fall back to the bottom and repeat the whole game ad nauseum. Maybe he just wanted to show you that his fellow goats rebuilt those bridges. They were really proud of those bridges. Don’t judge. Either way, you’re stuck in this Sisyphean nightmare and have to blow up those bridges again. You cad.
Canyon Climber II is an OK game, but it’s not terribly great. Aside from the obviously inferior Donkey Kong rip-off level, the other two levels are kind of boring and unfair. The goats in the first level like to randomly switch directions, often when you’re trying to jump over one, leading to many undeserved deaths, and the third one, while unique in that you’re jumping up mesas instead of platforms, is fairly repetitive. The controls are sluggish, and as a result, the pace of the game is mind-numbingly slow. And the fact that they just blatantly ripped off Donkey Kong for one of the levels shows how lazy somebody was on whatever team made this. It’s not even an homage; it’s just a clone randomly inserted in there. I don’t know; it bugs me.
As a side note, out of curiosity, I downloaded Canyon Climber to see the difference between it and its sequel. Oddly enough, they’re nearly identical. In fact, Canyon Climber II feels more like a beta version of the original than a sequel to it. The original has more polished music, the Donkey Kong level has been revamped with Indians shooting at you (fitting the Western theme better), and the graphics, while nearly identical, are a bit sharper. Honestly, if you’re looking for this game, get the first one, not the second.
Rating: D+ (the original would probably get closer to a C, for at least changing up the Donkey Kong level.)
Where Canyon Climber II took a classic game and made it much worse, Serpentine takes two classic game (in this case, Pac-Man and Snake) and makes them far better. You play as a blue, segmented snake (or maybe a centipede, you know, like from that classic arcade game. Mushroom Alley.) wandering around a Pac-man-esque maze, pursued by three enemy snakipedes (centisnakes? Let’s just call them snakes) and must defeat them in order to proceed to the next level. What makes this interesting is that, unlike most games, where the enemy creatures just kill you upon touch for no real reason (unless you have a power pellet or whatnot), the rules that govern your snake apply equally to all snakes. Let me explain.
If a snake runs into a larger snake head-on, the smaller one dies. If a snake head intersects any part of an opposing snake, it eats the segments it comes in contact with, leaving the other snake smaller. A frog also hops around a level, and if a snake eats it, then it grows by one segment. Snakes also randomly lay eggs around the maze, leaving the snake that laid it one segment shorter, but giving that side a chance for a new snake (if an enemy lays it, it will eventually hatch into a new, short enemy snake, whereas if you lay it, it will hatch into an extra life upon completion of the level). However, said eggs can also be eaten by an opposing snake, growing them by one segment.
The genius is that this applies to both sides equally. So in the screenshot above, the blue snake (the player) can just ram into the green snake and devour it whole, destroying it completely, since it has five segments and the green one only has four. Meanwhile, the orange snake directly above can kill the blue one if their heads collide, since it has six segments left, though in this case it’s more likely it’ll just shorten the blue snake by a few segments when it moves down. In short, the orange snakes will kill you, but the green ones you can kill.
I guess I don’t need to explain it in such detail, but it feels like a pretty refreshing spin on the old Pac-man formula. The reversals in fortune happen all over the place, and in the span of seconds you can go from hiding in the corner to boldy pursuing all your enemies to suddenly laying an egg right when you were about to devour an enemy, suddenly making it stronger than you and killing you (fortunately, the game gives you a visual cue right before an egg is laid, so hopefully that won’t happen often if you’re paying attention). You can also change up strategies, either chasing the orange snakes down from behind to try to shorten them, or go for the frog often enough until you’re longer than all the other snakes and can just clean them up in one fell swoop. There are also nine different maze configurations, which is nice, and you start each level at the length you ended the last one at (which means, if you were grinding segments out, you may start with the other snakes already green on occasion).
Serpentine is a great game. The controls are responsive, the graphics are fine, and the sound works well. But the gameplay itself is what really sells it, as it’s different enough to feel fresh, varied enough to never get boring, and a lot of fun, too. Definitely recommended.
At last we come to the final game that I had originally planned on reviewing, as well as the only game to start with a “Q” that obeys the rules of English (I’m looking in your direction, Qix!). Quarxon is essentially a two-player game (though you can play it against an AI) where you play two ships shooting at each other. But the twist is: you’re not actually shooting at each other; rather, you’re aiming for the eight objects behind the enemy ship (I guess they’re drydocked ships, as they also represent your lives), destroying their barrier one shot at a time, a la the shields in Space Invaders. The blue dividing line has holes that expand and contract, allowing you to shoot through it (if you shoot the line itself your shot bounces off and actually damages your own green barriers, so don’t do it!), forcing you to constantly move around to find the holes. Also, if you shoot twice without moving, the game penalizes you by creating a hole that your opponent can shoot through, regardless of whether there’s a spot in the blue line or not. And finally, if your active ship does get shot by either your opponent or your own ricocheting bullet, instead of just your ship blowing up, a red line of doom descends upon your side that instantly kills you upon contact. It normally has holes that you can fit through if you’re careful, but on higher difficulties said holes are either smaller or nonexistent.
All told, Quarxon is pretty fun, at least with two players. The action is well-paced, the controls are responsive, and the twists on the old “shoot your opponent a lot” routine keep it feeling fresh. Much like Serpentine, the new elements introduced in Quarxon help elevate it above similar games. It’s not tremendously groundbreaking or exciting, but it’s good enough for those with a competitive streak. Play it with a friend, though; the AI is either really stupid or nearly impossible, depending on your difficulty setting!
And with that, we come to the end of an era. I’ve now reviewed all of the Atari programs that I had growing up (barring some non-gaming software we had such as Atariwriter), which was my goal when I started this thing more than six years ago (sheesh, this took longer than I thought). I do have at least one more review in the pipeline for a game I didn’t discover until I was in high school in the late 90’s, which is also the best Atari game ever made, in my opinion (which is why I’m giving it its own review post). After that, though, I’d like to keep reviewing Atari stuff, so post any suggestions in the comments and I’ll take a look at them. Until then, thanks for reading!
Coming up next: M.U.L.E.
From the creators of that famous game Fast Eddie (remember Fast Eddie? I reviewed it like six years ago, you should!) comes this fast-paced action shooter! It mostly consists of moving a ship/gun emplacement/whatever through a central column, firing at various baddies on each row. Shoot enough of these, rack up enough kills and/or points, and eventually you’ll move on to the next wave, where ECCAMF. Sometimes an arrow will appear and move through a row; if you don’t kill it fast enough then it turns into a tank (like in the upper row in the screenshot) that can only be destroyed by shooting it from behind. More wicked, however, is the power pellet-like collectible that sometimes appears, stationary, at the end of the row, which you have to physically collect and is worth lots of points. However, if you do you’ve got to make it back to the central column quickly, as a blue thing that looks like two cymbals appears on that same row coming at you from the opposite side that you have to get out of the way for (you can’t shoot it, as your shot goes right through a hole in its middle: see the middle row in the screenshot). And if you don’t collect the pellet, it eventually turns into a high-speed ping-ponging projectile that’s hard to shoot without getting hit, so it spells danger no matter which way you go with one of those things.
Turmoil does what it does well: being a fast-paced shooting game. It doesn’t really do much more than that, however, so I can’t recommend it too highly. It’s just a bit of a time-waster trying to rack up a high score with good hand-eye coordination: typical late 70’s/early 80’s video game fare. Nothing more, nothing less. Also, unlike Fast Eddie, there are no flying fish to collect, so no points for surreality, I’m afraid.
I have a few herpetological questions about this game for any reading this who might be experts in that field. Do frogs climb trees? If so, do they drop apples on unsuspecting passersby? If so, are those passersby usually dinosaurs? Does dropping an apple onto a dinosaur cause an apple to immediately grow back in the tree? Do birds occasionally start chucking the apples out of the tree, much to the frog’s consternation? Does the amount of apples in the tree directly correlate to the time a frog can spend out of the water without drying up and dying? If the tree runs out of apples, does that normally result in the extinction of the nearby frog population? And, perhaps most importantly, do dinosaurs occasionally send invincible killer robots into these trees to murder any unsuspecting frogs who may be lurking in the branches?
Because if any of those things aren’t true, then I’ve got some serious words for whoever made this game.
As you may have guessed, Amphibian is an odd little thing, to say the least. The basic gist is that you’re a frog who spawns in a pond below a tree, then climbs the tree to drop apples on the heads of passing dinosaurs to rack up points. You can only spend a certain amount of time in the tree before starting to dry out and having to head back to the pond to remoisturize. The apples respawn if you hit a dino; however, aim carefully, for if you miss that apple’s pretty much gone forever, and if all the apples are gone (you also lose two or three of them if you bump into an enemy and die, forcing another frog to respawn in the pond) then game over! Occasionally birds will come along that toss down your apples willy-nilly that you have to destroy before you lose too many (hilariously if an apple thrown by a bird hits a dinosaur you still get points for it), and, as noted, sometimes a robot will come along to flush you out of the tree (the key to not being killed is to rush back to the pond the instant you see one of these robots appear). Also, sometimes a fisherman will sweep the pond, forcing you back up into the tree to survive, ensuring that you can’t just hide out in the pond. And finally, on occasion a duck-billed dinosaur (did those exist? Someone tell me those existed, please) will cross the screen, and if you hit it it will sink into the pond instead of being destroyed, and if you then drop down into the pond to touch it before it leaves the screen it’s worth a fair amount of points.
That’s a whole lot of explanation for a game that’s conceptually little more than “kill dinosaurs with apples”, but the gameplay is varied enough that it’s quite fun. Also, the music is pretty fantastic, with a jaunty little tune playing when a frog spawns, and a legitimately tearjerking funeral dirge that plays over the game over screen. Good stuff.
The controls are probably the biggest drawback, though, as in order to drop an apple you’ve got to hold the trigger and pull down on the joystick, which could also potentially drop your frog off the branch he’s on. This is annoying on most branches, but instantly deadly from the lower-right branch (as the drop is too far for your frog to survive) and it may drop you on top of a dinosaur. Also, it gets somewhat repetitive after a while, as there aren’t levels per se, not even levels that just change color and move faster. You just keep going until death, performing the same tasks over and over again while unstoppable forces push you closer and closer to your demise.
Well, now I’m depressed.
The year: 2002. The season: early spring. The location: the small town of Granollers, a windy city about half an hour north of Barcelona in Spain. I had been assigned to work in this city as part of a two-year mission I served for the LDS Church. I was nineteen years old, and it was the first time I had lived more than an hour’s drive away from home. I barely spoke the language, I was assigned a companion that I didn’t get along with too well, and I was preaching a gospel message that most people weren’t interested in hearing. It had been a rough day, filled with rejection, walking, people pretending not to be home, more walking, and also a fair amount of walking. My companion and I were sitting at the train station at early dusk, not speaking much to each other, as usual. I was feeling very alone, and very, very homesick.
That’s when, over the tinny sound of the train station’s PA system, I heard it. A soft melody that whisked my mind back to simpler times, to earlier years when I was surrounded by family in a familiar place, where I could speak the language and didn’t have to spend each day being ignored. A melody that soothed my homesickness and helped me think that, no matter where I was and how far away I was from anything I’d ever known, sometimes something warm would come out of the blue and reassure me that there was still a bit of familiarity even in that faraway land.
It was the lovely, lilting melody….from Pinhead.
Well, OK, it was actually the old classic “Around the World” (most probably the version recorded by Armando Mantovani that I linked to above), but I didn’t know it at the time. Heck, I didn’t even know the real name of this tune until I started writing this review. And, in truth, it was just one of several public domain songs that the makers of Pinhead stole for their silly Atari game (the second level plays “The Entertainer” and later levels play other turn-of-the-century tunes that I didn’t recognize offhand).
But it’s funny the things that you remember, and the things that can suddenly surface after years, just at the right moment.
Enough about musical nostalgia, though, what the heck is this game? Pinhead stars some sort of circus performer who rides a unicycle on a tightrope and pops balloons on his head, upon which sits a hat with a convenient pin sticking out of it, hence the clever title. Three rows of balloons float above you and drop one by one. The balloons are different colors, which determines each balloon’s speed and point value, and you have to ride back and forth catching them on your head to pop them (you can also press the trigger to kick outward if you miss one, hopefully kicking the balloon back into the air, where you get a second chance to pop it). Missing a balloon, however, is apparently so distressing that you immediately commit suicide rather than living with the shame that you failed to pop a balloon that is now careening out of control towards the hapless spectators below, perhaps lightly touching down on the tousled hair of a small, giggling child…oh the horror!
In the first level you pop the balloons one at a time, but in later levels you build a tower of five balloons on your head, which you then pop in a row. Later levels also have crabs that stay permanently on your head (unless you die), which are worth extra points. Other objects, such as diamonds, keys, candy canes, and other random things, also appear in later levels, and are identical to balloons except they are worth more points and often fall faster (the exception is the bucket, which you can’t kick, lest you die a horrible punny death). Occasionally, the game will change things up and have a level where you catch balloons thrown from the side of the screen, avoiding bombs that are also thrown at you, a la Fruit Ninja.
Also, sometimes after a level, Pac-man will appear and eat you. I have absolutely no idea why. You don’t lose a life or anything, it just happens.
Pinhead is a charming little game, evoking circus-based charm with some fun gameplay. The controls can get a little wonky (the timing for kicking a balloon is fairly unforgiving in particular), and it gets ridiculously difficult fairly quickly, but overall it’s memorable and can be fun once you get the hang of it.
(Free tip: Do not, under any circumstances, look up the box art for this game if you ever hope to sleep again.)
Vanguard is the third game on this disk to feature really memorable music. The main theme and invincibility theme evoke a Star Wars or Flash Gordon-esque heroism, while some of the middle-level themes (such as the one for the Rainbow Zone) suddenly turn the game into a goofy circus atmosphere. Fun stuff.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Vanguard is a shmup that has your ship traversing various zones in order to reach the end, where you shoot this bad guy hiding behind laser walls or something (as a side note: what was the first video game that actually had a boss at the end that you had to defeat? Could it actually have been Vanguard? Can you think of an earlier game? Can you? CAN YOU? No, seriously, this is a question I have). Most of the stages consist of flying to the right at a constant speed, while enemies (most often light blue spacecraft that fly around erratically or dark blue fighter jets that only move forward but can shoot) harass you. Sometimes you would come across a glowing “E” tank that would grant you temporary invincibility, complete with great heroic music.
At the end of each zone you would literally fly past a giant sign proclaiming the name of the next zone, most of which were similar “fly-to-the-right a lot” zones with changes of scenery (the first zone somewhat resembled an underground city, the “Styx Zone” had a lot of diagonal lines sticking out of the walls though it was sadly lacking in 70’s hard rock, and the “Stripe Zone” had two pathways through it with varying obstacles and walls made out of stripes, shockingly). The exceptions were the inappropriately-named “Rainbow Zone”, a diagonal zone resembling a monochromatic asteroid field with goofy music playing (these were really easy, as you could just sit in the middle and the blue or pink orbs would never hit you, only being able to move vertically, though about halfway through one of these zones a fifth orb would spawn at the player’s horizontal location, but even then it was easy to shoot down), and the “Bleak Zone”, which scrolled vertically instead of horizontally and resembled…space intestines, complete with intestinal worms? Also, circus music plays? OK, this game just got really weird. (You could latch onto the worms for extra points, though you could only do so three times: attempting it a fourth time just resulted in death for all parties involved.) And finally, there was the aptly-named “Last Zone”, where an alien dude sat behind scrolling lasers and the walls fired bullets at you. One hit on this “boss” and you win the level! Yay!
Vanguard actually had two levels, though the second consisted of the same zones as the first in a different order and with a different color scheme. After you beat the second one, you’d go back to the first with everything moving faster. It also had an onscreen map that wasn’t too useful, since you were just flying at a constant speed anyway, though I guess it did let you know when to prepare for the oh-so-difficult Rainbow Zone areas. It also had a fuel gauge, though instead of shooting a fuel tank to refill your gauge you could literally shoot any enemy to fill it a bit. Since the point of the game was to shoot everything I’m not sure why this was included (possibly so you wouldn’t go get a sandwich during the Rainbow Zone parts, maybe?).
The controls, however, are extremely sluggish. The enemy spacecraft are much faster than your dinky ship and often move in ways that are impossible to avoid, and when the game has one of those erratically-moving light blue spacecraft suddenly dart in your direction and fire off a missile you will almost certainly die without even being able to blink. I suppose that’s why they made continuing laughably easy; after you lose all your lives you continue in the exact same place, not even restarting whatever zone you’re in, with only your score reset. Also, if you die fighting the final boss the game just says, “Eh, screw it, you almost got him,” and tosses you into the next level anyway.
I remember liking this game a lot as a kid, though nowadays I think that that was mostly due to the music. I’d rate it higher if the controls weren’t so ridiculously slow and the game extremely unfair as a result. I appreciate what they were trying to do with it, and due to the different levels and in-game map it nearly feels like a game five years ahead of its time, even if it doesn’t play like one. I’d say play it once to see all the different zones and hear the different music, then put it away, ’cause that’s all you can really do with it.
That’s it for Disk 25, and next time we’ll finish up the last disk that I had planned on reviewing: Disk 26, with Journey to the Planets, Canyon Climber II, Serpentine, and Quarxon. After that, I don’t know what I’ll review, though if you have a suggestion please leave it in the comments. Until then!
So, yeah. Disk 24. When I was young we had a lot of computer magazines and other books by publishers like Compute! that has a lot of example programs for Atari BASIC (the programming language) So, since I was a social outcast nerd, I spent a lot of time using these books to write my own programs for the Atari. Everybody thought I was going to grow up to be some big shot computer programmer because of this, but what they didn’t know was that, instead of developing my own programming or coding skills to create new and original programs, I was mostly literally copying these straight out of the books we had and then sometimes adding goofy jokes to them (and since I did almost all of these when I was still in elementary school, the “jokes” are of the hilarious caliber one can expect from an 11-year-old or younger). So I thought I’d go through this disk the same way I went through the L.E.A.P. disks and just do a quick runthrough of these silly little things my child self did, with generous help from Atari manuals and magazines (and if you want to check these out, here’s the disk image for emulator use. Make sure to load it with BASIC enabled and type “RUN”D:MENU” to get it all working).
Like with L.E.A.P. disks, notable programs will be marked with a heart (♥), and screenshots may come up if I think they’re needed. All of the programs with a “T” at the end I said were “technical” programs, which means they’re more tech demos to show off graphics and such (and I probably just copied these line by line out of a manual with no edits at all).
♥ Escape — A “Choose Your Own Adventure” thing where you were searching for a treasure when two thieves trapped you in the basement of an old house, but soon you found a crack in the wall and found this vast underground cavern to explore, Goonies-style. About all the input the user has is to pick a tunnel from one to six, down which various things happen, such as a snake chasing you down, a hole that you fall through to another crossroads (i.e. the tunnel destinations get re-randomized), a message that says, “Blah. Wrong Tunnel,” an insta-kill bomb, and so on. At the end you randomly find a gun and have to shoot some bad guys (really just an ASCII character that moves across the screen and you hit the joystick button when it’s in your sights) and you win! Yay?
MusicDrw — Billed as “A Game by Jeff & Ben” (myself and my brother, respectively), you just control a pixel that moves about the screen drawing a brown line behind it. Also, a tone plays that rises in pitch if you move down or right, and lowers in pitch if you move up or left.
♥ Politics — You’re the mayor of a town, and the citizens keep petitioning you for stuff. The more you give them the more popular you become, but if you run out of money then they get mad and kick you out of office. Also apparently the town has a popular dogcatcher who is beloved by the citizens (sometimes their requests are along the lines of “more nets for the dogcatcher” and “let’s make a statue of the dogcatcher.” Hey, I didn’t write this, I just copied it out of an Atari magazine somewhere), and after a while an election happens: you v. the dogcatcher. If you’re popular enough, you win! If not, that lousy dogcatcher steals your mayorial seat. ‘Tis a shame.
As an added bonus, at the end of the game, it gives you an option to embezzle everything that’s left in the budget and escape to a remote Caribbean island. It’s the little touch of realism that makes the game extra special. (I honestly don’t remember if my 11-year-old self added that at the end, but I think I did, which is pretty cynical for a kid.)
Menu — This loads the menu. Do I need to mention it?
♥ RSP — A rousing game of Rock, Paper, Scissors (or Rock, Scissors, Paper, as I erroneously call it). It’s really simple and mindless: you play up to ten rounds against the computer (who picks randomly). The only reason I’m giving this a heart is because I put a lot of effort into making it really snarky about it. None of it is particularly hilarious, but it does utilize speech that a 10-year-old in the early 90’s might find hip, and it also makes several references to “I’m playing this game instead of doing my math homework” which was probably actually the truth. I spent most of my time writing like a dozen different responses each for winning or losing a round.
Music — This plays some random 4-part tune that is flat (I even said so in the text that accompanies the actual program). Then it plays “Shave and a Haircut” because why not.
MoveIt — A giant pixel moves across the screen. Yay.
ScrollT — Billed as “A Game by Jeff”, though that’s a bit of a misnomer, this is kind of a cool program that at first just appears to draw a line on the screen, but if you move the joystick down, it scrolls up and reads whatever’s in the memory at the time, interpreting it as graphics. Since apparently Atari doesn’t clear its RAM even after you unload a program, it’s possible that graphics from a previously loaded program may show up, possibly garbled, or it might just look like a random scrambled mess.
DemoT — A demo of Graphics Modes 9-11 on the Atari 800XL GTIA Chip. Mode 9 can display only one hue but at sixteen luminances, Mode 11 can display sixteen hues but only one luminance, and Mode 10 can do a mix but can only do 9 colors at a time. That’s pretty much it. Sounds boring, but it actually helps explain why a lot of Atari graphic designers made the choices they did, knowing the framework they had to work with. (Modes 3-8, for those who are wondering, were made for the earlier, more primitive CTIA chip, have much bigger pixel sizes, and the color choices are limited to four. And modes 0-2 are text only.)
ZigZag — This program verrrry slooooooowly draws a zigzag pattern. Then it moves across the screen. It’s kind of hypnotic. Almost like a lava lamp. What’s that, zigzag? Really? You want me to do what? But where will I hide the bodies?
Sinewave — It draws a sinewave. And thanks to that “DemoT” program, I can now tell you that it was drawn in Mode 9. I feel like I’ve (re-)learned something today.
Pop — This shows an image of a delicious-looking rainbow popsicle. Mode 11, b@%$es!
ModeT — Shows off graphics modes 1-3. Modes one and two are different text sizes, where the pixel size for mode 3 is gigantic. So there’s that.
BoxedIn — It draws a box (in Mode 3, no less!) and then it flashes different colors. A caption reads, “An Interesting Box.” Boy howdy, is it interesting. I could stare at it all day. I have probably never been more interested in any other type of box than I was with this box. It’s that interesting. It’s more interesting than the Dos Equis guy, and even that Old Spice guy on a horse. Lives have been changed — nay– the WORLD has changed, all because of this, the most interesting of all boxes.
ColorDrw — Like “MusicDrw” but without music. You can also choose a color from 1 to 3, and to show how obviously this was copied out of the manual, it literally says, “refer to the manual for color numbers” despite not saying which manual to refer to. It is a mystery lost to the ages.
CavernT — I’m not sure what this is supposed to do. It says it’ll take 45 seconds to initialize and then gives out an error message (said error happens because it tries to call a subroutine that doesn’t exist). Well, whatever. It may have been a program that I just never finished.
ATASCIIT — This just lists all the ATASCII characters together with their number in the code table. It’s basically this (the “DEC” and “GRA” colums).
HFile — It says, “Sorry, HFile died” when you try to load it. I don’t remember what this was supposed to be either.
Poke — This uses the “Poke” command (a common command used in Atari programming to directly change stuff stored in RAM) to mess up your keyboard, and then laughs at you as you try to type something but nothing you type corresponds to the letters that actually show up on the screen. Ha ha!
Marquee — Displays this:
**************** * * * * * THE SHOW OF * * FAME * * * ****************
The asterisks then alternate red and blue. I don’t know if this is quite as interesting as the “interesting box”, but it probably comes close.
Weird — This shows off a “weird and unusual trick” which amounts to flipping all the text on the screen upside down for a moment. Pretty weird.
♥ Number — This is the “guess the number between X and Y” program that I’m pretty sure every programming student ever has written at least one iteration of. I put a heart here mainly because it does give a few varied responses instead of the standard “too high” or “too low”, and for some reason, after you guess it, the computer suddenly goes into a British accent (e.g. “I say, you guessed the number! Good show! Good show!”). That part was most definitely not copied out of a manual.
Warning — This is a demo of graphics mode 1 (which is a text mode), disguised as this weird warning that the computer will beat you up if you stick around. I dunno. A 10-year-old nerd can’t really write a threatening message.
PoemGuys — A direct ripoff of the “Haiku” program from L.E.A.P. disk 4, with a few edits from preteen me (such as using the ridiculously ’90’s phrase “dudical dude”).
Lightnin — Lightning flashes! Thunder crashes! This repeats until you quit.
Flash — Input your name. Then your name flashes like a strobe light with the phrase “is a flashy person” underneath. Yup.
None of these are terribly noteworthy on their own, though I appreciate them for nostalgic reasons, and those who know me might appreciate them for the same reason. And hey, unlike the other L.E.A.P. disks, at least none of these were addition programs. Or nuclear plant diagrams.
In conclusion, I leave you with this life-changing image:
Truly…the most interesting of boxes.
I swapped the site over to letter grades instead of the old number (x/10) ratings I’d previously used. This is mostly because people seem to be more OK with a game being rated, say, B-, instead of 5/10. This also gives me a little more nuance, especially on the lower end of the system (most of the previously 2/10 games now range from C- to D-). Let me know what you think of the new system! And check out the ratings page for a little more in-depth explanation.
The dangerous scenario: a bird hates a building! It also craps fire! You climb a ladder that also somehow moves horizontally, like those ladders-on-wheels in old libraries in kids’ movies, spraying water on the fire to put it out. If you’re not quick enough, a section of the building burns out and some poor soul falls to his death, unless you can grab him and take him to the top of the ladder, where a helicopter frequently flies by and takes them to safety, perhaps in a secret mountain base on the other side of a volcano. Perhaps it would make more sense to bring the jumper to the ground instead of a helicopter that can only carry one guy at a time, but whatever, firefighter guy, I’m sure you know what you’re doing. If two columns of the building completely burn down, or you get smacked on the head by several people falling to their deaths, then it’s game over, but if neither of those things happen, then the game doesn’t end. There are no levels, no bonuses, just a bird that gradually speeds up and a score that keeps goin’.
Most people, however, probably won’t get that far, as the game takes forever to get remotely challenging, so for the first ten minutes you’re putting out fires that the bird drops once every five seconds or so (which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s an eternity of sitting on that stupid ladder waiting around). Once the difficulty level ramps up a bit it gets a little more interesting, but the gameplay is fairly monotonous regardless of how fast the bird is flying or the fires are burning. I’d play it for ten seconds, say, “Yep, I played that game, all right,” and move on.
Here’s a “fun” fact: according to the instruction “manual” (which is probably about as long as this review), the firefighter’s name is Piggo. The first line reads, “As if our fearless hero, PIGGO, the firefighter, didn’t have troubles enough. . .” This paints a very sad picture, at least in my mind, of this poor firefighter, who wakes up one morning to an empty bed and a note saying his wife left him and took the kids, and then he tries to get to work but the car is busted so he has to take his daughter’s bike (the one with the pink tassels) to the station, and on the way he’s splashed with mud by several cars driving past, one of which also throws an empty beer can at his head, shouting about all these “fat *$%#ing tubs of lard hogging the $^%#ing right lane on their stupid $&#ing bikes.” When he gets to the fire station, the chief notifies him that he’s being laid off the next day because someone stole their truck and they have to make cutbacks in order to afford a new one, but for today he gets to use the mobile ladder on wheels with the hose tied to it. Just then he looks out the window and notices that a giant firebird is burning down the city. “Aw, geez, a &^%$ing firebird, too? After the day I’ve been having?!? COME ON, YOU &#^%ING FIREBIRD, SHOW ME WHAT YOU’VE GOT!!!!” Soon he gets beaned by a jumping tenant and falls off the ladder to his death.
From the same company that brought you the pathos-filled Firebird comes this “exciting” game! The manual lays out this detailed backstory about how some galactic organization has passed a trade embargo causing the citizens of Zorbulon VI or whatever to suffer and who will be brave enough to violate sacred trade agreements blah blah blah The Phantom Menace blah blah blah whatever I’m already bored.
The real story of this game, as made up by my childhood brain twenty-five or more years ago, concerns a wacky interplanetary McDonald’s scheme! Green Happy Meals, brown hamburgers, and pinkish hot dogs (shut up McDonald’s does hot dogs now) move across a conveyor belt between the Solitare [sic] plant and the SM. Inc. building. Your job is to swipe as much food as possible and stuff it into your giant spaceship to take back to Mars, for as we all know, Martians love them some fast food but there aren’t any franchises there (yet), so this is their only option.
Basically you’re a blue UFO that dodges flying rockets, Frogger style, to pick up some colored shapes in order to stuff them into a giant flying saucer. Once you’ve picked up enough of them, it flies off and you move to the next level (where ECCAMF). Crashing into anything will kill you (you can also crash your cargo into something, which will disintegrate the cargo but leave you intact). There’s also a flying “H” which will take potshots at you that you can destroy, but which takes maybe two-thirds of a second to respawn so it’s usually not worth it except for maybe to get some points. You also have a fuel gauge that I couldn’t figure out how to refill (other than dying or passing a level), so I guess it acts as a level timer? Maybe fuel appears at higher difficulty levels? I never got it to appear.
Embargo is better than Firebird, but that’s not saying a whole lot. I think the main reason I liked this game when I was younger was because of the silly McDonald’s backstory I made up for it. As it stands, it plays pretty well for the first few minutes but can get monotonous pretty quickly. However, it is colorful, well-made, and doesn’t have any obvious glaring flaws, so it’s all OK.
Good Idea: Making a 3D first-person-perspective version of Pacman!
Bad Idea: Doing it with terrible ASCII graphics suitable for ZZT (I’d say that making a ZZT reference shows how old I am, but then again, I am reviewing old Atari games), where the monsters (read: Pacman ghosts) are either slow as dirt or too fast to avoid, where the power pellets, er, “vitamin pills” always wear off too quickly to actually take down a monster, where looking at the map doesn’t pause the game and lets a monster kill you, and where the game doesn’t actually run properly on most Atari configurations, causing it to either never load or get stuck on the title screen in an infinite loop.
That does it for Disk 23. Next up is Disk 24, which is… kind of its own unique thing, so the next normal disk we’ll be looking at is Disk 25, which covers Turmoil, Amphibian, Pinhead, and Vanguard. ‘Til then!
This post is combining five disks, even though it only has three games. This is because I could never get disks 18-21 copied correctly from my actual Atari to my PC, and also I couldn’t remember exactly what was on disks 19 or 20. Disk 19 had some sort of top-down racing game with oil slicks everywhere that I thiiiink was programmed in BASIC, and I can picture it in my head, but for the life of me I can’t remember the name of it. If I ever find it (or if someone reading this knows what it’s called and contacts me) then I will add it to this post. In addition, starting with disk 21, some of the games were repeats from earlier disks, so I am skipping those ones. Disk 21 also had a game that was called “Wizard” on the loading menu, but never worked right, so I have no idea what game it actually was (probably Wizard of Wor though).
With that said, let’s take a look at the games I could pick out of these five disks:
I hate this effing game. Hate it with the passion of a thousand suns. My goodness, do I hate it. It. Gave. Me. Horrible. Nightmares! In Wayout you are stuck in a maze and must find your way out (duh). The maze is your standard 3D first-person maze, though you have full range of movement, unlike most “3D” mazes of the time, which only let you turn 90 degrees. Since the walls all look the same and it’s easy to get lost, you also have a compass and an automap function that help you find your way around. However, these aren’t as useful as you may originally think, due to the only real enemy this maze has. Worse than Nazis, worse than demons from hell or interdimensional aliens or whatever other enemies one may face in more modern FPS’s…
…is the Cleptangle.
This horrible abomination of nature at first seems to be just annoying (and probably for most people playing, it is simply annoying and nothing more). It’s just a spinning, flashing rectangle that roams the maze making a horrible random robotic noise, and if it catches you, it steals your compass (the first time it catches you), and then your ability to automap (the second time). After that you have to go chase it down to get your abilities back, but it can then steal them again, and the cycle never ends. It doesn’t show up on your map, and the only way you know where it is (unless it’s right in front of you) is to hear its horrible alarm slowly get louder and louder and higher and higher, while a white line above your viewport gets longer the closer it gets, until suddenly, with a wrenching, schlluuup sound, you’ve lost all ability to navigate in the maze, and are now doomed to wander the identical, seemingly endless corridors in a futile effort to seek your way out…
Seriously, even replaying this stupid game to do this review game me PTSD flashbacks to when I played it when I was, like, three. This was my boogeyman, my monster under the bed, this spinning rectangle from the foulest depths of the abyss. You couldn’t do anything about it. You couldn’t shoot it. You couldn’t hide from it. You couldn’t run away from it for long. The only thing you could do was chase it through the endless hallways to get your stuff back, hoping you didn’t get irredeemably lost in the meantime. It didn’t help the creepy factor that, aside from the Cleptangle, the exit, and the sound you made as you slid around the maze, the game was completely silent.
If you are able to make it past that obstacle (and, to be honest, most people playing this above the age of three probably weren’t bothered by it), you still have to find the exit, which is harder than it seems, considering it’s at a random place in the maze (not always on the outside), and it also makes a horrible sound when you draw near. To complicate matters, there is also a wind that blows in a constant direction in every maze, which can sometimes block your movement (the intro maze in particular has the exit six feet in front of the entrance, but you have to loop around the whole maze due to the wind tunnel between the two points) and is represented by little yellow flecks blowing about at all times.
Wayout was a technical marvel of the time, with its ability to do true 3D movement (unlike, say, Ball Blazer, which was still limited to 90 degree turning), but other than that, it’s mostly just a simple “get out of this maze” game. The game does track your steps made and saves the high score to the disk, so there’s at least some replay value (since there are 26 mazes that never change). If you want to get a three-year-old to never sleep again then show this game to him; otherwise, there are more interesting maze games out there.
Something fun about doing these reviews is going back and playing games I haven’t played for years even though they form a big part of my childhood, and discovering all-new things about them I never knew because, as a kid, I wasn’t good enough of a player to find them out. Such was the case when I replayed Blue Max here, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Blue Max puts you in the oversized aviator goggles, leather jacket, and awesome scarf of a British WWI pilot (the game tells you you’re British by blaring “Rule, Britannia!” at you the instant the game finishes loading) flying deep into enemy territory to perform bombing and strafing runs. At first I thought the pilot’s name was Max, or that Blue Max was some sort of title or nickname (similar to “Red Baron”), but no, apparently it’s the name of a medal that you’re trying to win. Kind of like if Call of Duty was actually named Congressional Medal of Honor, or Star Wars was named That Thing That Princess Leia Puts On Everyone’s Neck Except For Chewie’s ‘Cause Screw Him.
You fly over two basic terrain types: a river and its banks, and a street and its, uh, stuff on the sides of the street. The game autoscrolls isometrically, with your movement confined to left-right and up-down (handily, the game lets you decide between normal and inverted controls for that extra bit of aircraft realism), where shooting is accomplished with the trigger, and bombing with the trigger and pulling down. The best way to rack up points, though, is to fly close enough to the ground to just strafe everything in sight (too far down, though, and you end up crashing into buildings and trees). AA guns, boats, and enemy aircraft are firing at you, and if you’re hit your bombs, guns, fuel, or maneuverability are compromised one by one, and if you’re hit when all four of these have been damaged you simply blow up (dying is also accomplished by ramming headfirst into an enemy plane or crashing into the ground due to not paying attention). Damage can be repaired and your fuel can be topped off at a runway that shows up every so often (make sure you press the trigger to lower your landing gear; otherwise, you’ll just kamikaze right into the runway, which would probably be a pretty embarrassing way to go). Nobody explains why there are friendly runways all over the place in enemy territory, but at least it’s a flying game where refueling doesn’t consist of shooting a fuel tanker, unlike pretty much every other game with fuel I’ve reviewed so far.
When I was young I was never good enough to get terribly far in this game, but replaying it recently revealed that there’s actually a third section beyond the river and street portions: an actual city with gigantic buildings. Three obvious colored bombing targets are scattered about in this city, and bombing them all and landing on the next runway causes the game to actually…
wait for it…
END! That’s right, this game has an ending! No “everything changes color and moves faster” for this WWI sim, no sir! True, the ending is just a score ranking and another rendition of “Rule, Britannia!” but that’s more than we usually got from these old Atari games! Well done, Synapse! I can forgive you for Slime and Nautilus now!
Even without this plot twist of the plot…actually ending…, Blue Max is a pretty great game. It has been described as a Zaxxon-esque shooter due to its isometric scrolling, but I enjoyed Blue Max way more than I did Zaxxon. The graphics are sharp, clean, and colorful; the controls and gameplay are fun, addictive, and challenging without ever being frustrating; even the sound effects have the perfect level of bite to them. If Blue Max isn’t the best autoscrolling shooter for the Atari 8-bit lineup, it’s right near the top of the list.
(Disclaimer: I will not be making any references to the Survivor TV show. I’ve never seen an episode, and I don’t really plan to, even just to make jokes about it in a review of an obscure Atari game. I apologize in advance if you were looking forward to some brilliant bon mots in this vein. If it makes you feel any better, I doubt the TV show has made any references to this game or my review of it either. If that changes in the future, I may reconsider my position.)
Survivor stars what appears to be the ship from Asteroids flying around space, targeting and blowing up what I can only assume are space stations, since “irregular 90° shapes covered in guns” doesn’t sound as exciting. There are four stations in all, each protected by its own color-coded cat-food-shaped shielding. Your job is to break through the shields and shoot all of the guns. Said guns also unwisely function as load-bearing apparati, as blowing them all up causes each station to violently self-destruct. Also, on occasion, a red, blue, or green spinning thing (and sometimes two or all three of them) appears on the screen with a wobbly whine and tries to kamikaze into your ship. These don’t directly home in on you, though (’cause that would make them easier to shoot, you see), but instead kind of wobble around drunk in your general direction, as if the aliens in charge of these stations were deliberately trying to rid themselves of the morons in their society by putting them in suicide ships that they clearly can’t fly correctly. Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for these drunken bombers, you shoot out both the front and back of your little ship, so destroying them just takes a bit of careful maneuvering. In addition, they are also destroyed by shots from the guns on their own stations, furthering the theory that nobody liked them anyway.
After destroying every station, the game suddenly dumps you back to the title screen, making you manually have to select a harder difficulty in order for the game to make everything move faster. That’s pretty much it.
Survivor is a decent little game. While the layout is the same every time, the action isn’t half bad, and dodging the homing guys can be challenging. Destroying the stations can get somewhat tedious, though, especially since two of them have some guns in little interior sections that require you to perform a pixel-perfect maneuver to even reach the guns (which immediately shoot you as soon as you get in there anyway), and heaven help you if a kamikaze tries to get you at the same time you’re slowly creeping into one of those spaces. It’s still fun enough for a quick diversion.
That does it for this wide spread of Disks 18-22, barring somebody telling me what that racing game on disk 19 is called. Next up we narrow our focus back to a single disk, with Disk 23 covering Firebird, Embargo, and Monster Maze. Until then!
Clowns & Balloons
Have you ever been playing a game of Breakout and thought to yourself, “You know what this game needs? More clowns!” Well, boy howdy, have we got a game for you!
Clowns & Balloons is exactly what it claims to be: a game with clowns and balloons. You control two guys holding a trampoline running around underneath a clown (or possibly trapeze artist; I don’t think it’s the clowns who do the death-defying physical stunts at the circus) who bounces up in the air, popping balloons in a series of three lines that scroll past the upper half of the screen. Adding a bit of flavor (read: frustration) to the game is the fact that you have to pop the lines in order; if you pop all the balloons in the middle or upper lines before you’ve finished the lower one, then that line simply replenishes itself, forcing you to pop it again before moving on. Every time you finish a line, a short ragtime riff plays, and when you finish an entire level, a monkey does this:
Which is adorable. Also, ECCAMF.
While this is basically just a goofy version of Breakout, it’s still pretty fun. The clown can move really fast at times (sometimes too fast for you to actually keep up), so it can get frustrating at higher difficulty levels, but the goofy music that plays when your poor clown plows headfirst into the cold, unforgiving ground pretty much makes up for it. Play it today, and pop some balloons/kill some clowns in style!
Have you ever owned a Nokia phone? Did you have a computer any time before 1995? If so, you’ve already played this game, so what do you need me for? Snake Byte is a version of that classic snake game where you’re a short snake who grows in length every time you eat something (in this case, “apples”) but can’t run into the wall or your own tail lest you smash your head and end the game. In this version there are several levels with different wall layouts, and you have the option of between 0-2 “plums” flying about the level, which also can smash into your head and kill you. Why can a snake eat apples but not plums? Don’t snakes actually eat, like, rats or something? Also, there is a time limit in which you need to eat a certain number of apples in order to advance to the next stage, after which the required number jumps up (but so do the number of apples strewn about). So that’s a thing.
This is a decent version of the simple snake game, but there’s nothing exactly groundbreaking here about it, especially since you can probably play this game on, like, 1st-generation Zunes or something. Are those even still a thing? I dunno.
Have you ever had the experience where, in a game of Wii Boxing, a small relative of yours, perhaps a 4-year-old girl, flailed around with the Wiimote randomly and still totally took you down? Did you think to yourself, “Boy, I’d sure like to put that little girl in her place with a boxing game from more than thirty years ago!” What? You didn’t? Well, you probably won’t be interested in hearing about Knockout! from the creatively titled “Microcomputer Games, Inc.” You wouldn’t want to hear about its straightforward gameplay where two boxers can only either punch high, middle, and low, or block high, middle, and low. You couldn’t care less about the fact that these boxers seem to only be made of muscle and embarrassingly short shorts since the graphics are terrible (also the game is almost entirely silent apart from the opening bell and barely audible punching sounds). And you certainly wouldn’t want to know that, despite it being likely the most generic boxing game ever created, there is still more strategy and skill involved here than in Wii Sports. You’d probably want to take the loser’s way out by “sparing her feelings” or “letting her feel good about herself.” Well, guess what, Mr. or Ms. Coward? Quitters never win! (Also, she’d probably beat you in this game too.)
That does it for Disk 17. For the next post, I will be combining a few disks together, since we’re nearing the end of these disks and I’m cutting out some repeats. Next up, Disks 18-22, featuring Wayout, Blue Max, and Survivor. Until then!